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The Kids Will Tell You

by Jose Vilson on April 5, 2011

in Mr. Vilson


On Saturday, I had the honor of listening to eight teens from a high school in Harlem for about 1/2 an hour (it was the third of four stops that Saturday), hosted by Columbia University professor and Twitter associate Christopher Emdin. While I didn’t get a chance to sit for the whole conversation, I noticed the passion and candor from each of the students. Whoever would question our students’ ability to articulate their own needs should have sat next to me or any other member of the captive audience. These were voices unleashed, untamed, and, at times, brutal. However, I appreciated all of it because kids rarely get to express themselves in any academic setting and, whenever they do, they get disregarded as wanton. It’s symptomatic of ageist adults who probably don’t care what kids have to say except in the context of their class.

Because kids need that connection, they will tell you what I just said in fewer words.

Every few weeks, I see my alum strolling by my school or passing by my office, and they all say how much they miss the school, and how different high school is. Yes, there’s a bit of bias because most of them come to see me. But, more importantly, they often feel disconnected at the high school levels. Most of my students end up in the “small schools” sheltered within the big buildings, a false solution for a physically big problem. They may have teachers who care about them in these places, but in the transition from my school (a big school in its own right), they lose that sense of community when they don’t have a set of people who constantly look out for them.

How do I know? The kids all tell me.

I see some of them miss school because they know no one cares whether or not they show up to school. They know that they’re amongst those who have already been determined to drop out. Some of the teachers don’t teach it at a pace that kids can learn it. They’re asked to cover x material before a month before the Regents or the big semester test, and then review the last few months when the students never saw it the first time. Whatever the other missing pieces may be for the students in the next level may be, they’ve taken notice, and they’re not all going to take that lightly.

That’s happening in schools on all levels across America, and just because the kids can’t articulate the injustices done to them doesn’t mean they don’t have a way of getting it across. They’ll curse, kick, scream, spit, or yell, but they will make it known that they’re not receiving their fair share of the pie. Part of that is not having enough people who care whether they succeed or not. For many of our students, just that is enough. For people like me, it’s definitely not. We need more resources, more time to discuss topics, less emphasis on standardized exams, less numbers, and more emphasis on them as people.

Just don’t ask me that. You can read me at your leisure. You can ask your students. They will tell you even when you don’t want to hear it …

Jose, who doesn’t always get the opportunity to listen to students, so when he does, he relishes in it …

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